Best of the Best

Photographs by Phil Kline

EVERY YEAR, the Alcalde gives alumni the opportunity to nominate the professors who made their time on the Forty Acres so memorable — the Longhorns who inspire, support, and teach way beyond the syllabus. This year’s Texas 10 list ranges from an expert on indoor air quality to an English professor exploring the uncanny with students through books, playlists, and films. We’re pleased to introduce these incredible professors.

John Sibley Butler

J. Marion West Chair for Constructive Capitalism, Faculty Director of Jon Brumley Texas Venture Labs, Professor, McCombs School of Business, College of Liberal Arts | Years at UT: 48

THE TITLES JOHN SIBLEY BUTLER HAS HELD over his impressive tenure at The University of Texas could (and do) take up pages. He holds positions on several boards, has received dozens of awards, has authored multiple books and hundreds of articles, was selected for the election committee advisory board for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, and was the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan for 14 years. And he can tell you about every successful startup to come out of Austin over the past few decades.

Put simply, he’s a busy man.

At home on the Forty Acres, Butler teaches courses on entrepreneurship, blending his business expertise with his knowledge of sciences, sociology, and psychology to dive into some of the world’s most successful businesses and innovators — Southwest Airlines, Dell, Facebook, and more.

“I don’t believe that disciplines should have barriers between them,” Butler says.

One of his entrepreneurship courses is open to students outside of McCombs, where he guides them on how to turn their ideas into viable businesses. He starts class with some words of encouragement: “When I walk in, I say, ‘Somebody’s got to be in the top of the 1 percent. Why not you?’”

But he still finds time for his other passion in life: music. Butler, who plays guitar and piano, and sings, credits his time in the Louisiana State University marching band for helping him get where he is today.

“I tell all people, my discipline comes from the music side … from being in the LSU band for four years and preparing a halftime show and knowing I’m going to be on national television, and I can’t be out there by myself. It was a lot of planning,” he says.

Butler hopes his students embarking on journeys in the business world hold on to their own creative passions.

“I connect with my students by bringing out the creativity that they have,” Butler says. “As a matter of fact, what I say is this: ‘Don’t allow the university to take away your creativity.’”
— Abigail Rosenthal

Eve Prilipko

Assistant Professor of Instruction, Management, McCombs School of Business | Years at UT: 3

IT’S NOT HARD FOR EVE PRILIPKO to empathize with her students, perhaps because she was a student for so long herself. Growing up in the former Soviet Union as the youngest child in her family, she would lecture her stuffed animals and dolls, tearing notepads in half for her inanimate scholars and marking their imaginary work with red pens.

“I couldn’t imagine myself in a different capacity,” she says. “My whole family is doctors, so they really wanted me to go to medical school, but I said, ‘No, I’m going to the pedagogical university.’” And thus, she earned her first of three master’s degrees at Blagoveshchensk State Pedagogical University, focused on methods of teaching.

At McCombs, Prilipko has the task of teaching public speaking methods to young students, some of whom may be incredibly anxious about the idea of talking in front of 10 or hundreds of people. It’s a fear Prilipko understands — a self-described introvert, public speaking didn’t come naturally to her either.

She has developed her own teaching method, dubbed TEAMko, where she separates her students into smaller groups that form “one big family,” offering two different levels of support as they tackle a skill with which many struggle. All in all, it seems to have worked.

“You see so much confidence by the end of the semester,” she says. “They feel good about themselves. This is the most rewarding experience — discovering people within people by the end of each semester.” — A.R.

Elizabeth Richmond-Garza

Director of the Program in Comparative Literature, Associate Professor of English, College of Liberal Arts | Years at UT: 32

ELIZABETH RICHMOND-GARZA IS USED TO confronting the things that frighten us. It happens in almost every class she teaches, from her world literature course to “Modernity, Anxiety, and the Art of the Uncanny” to her upper-level honors course, “Vampires and Dandies.”

But the goal isn’t to scare students in an already frightening world. By reading about monsters, ghosts, murders, and mob-supported stonings, Richmond-Garza, who uses she/they pronouns, is giving her classes the tools to understand our culture — and themselves — even more.

“You find out a great deal about people based on what they’re frightened of and what matters to a community or to an individual,” she says.

Richmond-Garza likes to blend the old and the new, deftly using films, TV, and original Spotify playlists alongside literature to connect topics to today.

“Literary cultural objects allow people to talk about things,” Richmond-Garza says. “They create a safe space for talking about things that are difficult. If you can talk about a film, if you can talk about a book, if you can imagine, What would I do in the situation of this fictional character?, it gives you all kinds of tools and skills to negotiate real-world problems.”

Incorporating a class’s favorite bands into a playlist or bringing pop culture into the discussion allows students to interact with intense or anxiety-inducing ideas in a more comfortable way. And for some, it may even be therapeutic to confront these frightening things and label them.

Richmond-Garza hopes her students leave her courses knowing who they are more clearly. Perhaps, she says, “by having spent some time in the imaginary worlds of people who are probably very different from them.” — A.R.

Mia Markey

Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering | Years at UT: 20

MIA MARKEY WAS GETTING READY to host another session of her Maymester study abroad program in Portugal when the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. As it became clear no one was going to make it on a plane that year, she had to adapt in a way she never has before.

“That was definitely a teaching adventure,” Markey laughs, walking on her home treadmill while chatting over Zoom. “We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. And I think for me, I realized that a weakness was mental flexibility. I often cope with uncertainty by planning things really carefully. Study abroad was a great experience of realizing that if I was going to be effective, I was going to have to be really flexible. And, oh, my goodness, was the 2020 offering one that just really took that to the extreme.”

Instead of canceling the program, which focused on international perspectives on health care design, Markey adjusted. She and her teaching assistant Mae Lewis worked hard to bring the cultural experiences students were missing to their homes, formerly in-person interviews with Portuguese experts became video calls, and she began sporting a “professor crown” while teaching virtually — the signal to her four children that “I am not your mother right now, I am a professor, and you need to let me profess.”

Things have changed since 2020. Markey is working on a semester-long design course with the Dell Medical School instead, and she’s since replaced her professor crown with a stuffed animal (the crown doesn’t stay on when she’s walking on her treadmill). But one thing Markey has always tried to focus on is being not just a teacher to her students, but being a mentor.

“When you think about yourself as just being a teacher, there’s more of a focus on ‘I have some knowledge or some skill that I’m trying to impart to this other person,’” Markey says. “Whereas [with] mentoring, there’s a lot more focus on, ‘What are this person’s goals, and how can you help them reach those goals more effectively?’ Being able to find places where you can move closer to a mentoring relationship can be very enriching.” — A.R.

Pawel Misztal

Assistant Professor, Department of Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering | Years at UT: 3

PAWEL MISZTAL WAS IN HIS second semester teaching at UT, leading a course on indoor air quality, when the pandemic forced a shutdown of in-person classes. Coincidentally, he had reached the section on airborne infectious disease and transmission. Knowing it would be an excellent opportunity for his students, he applied for and received a grant from the National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research Program to study exposure to disinfectants.

“We wanted to come to work and help the community,” he says. “We wanted to help understand the role of masks, what is happening if we disinfect, and so on.”

Misztal’s expertise centers around his work involving the unique mass spectrometer, an instrument that allows researchers to “see chemistry in real-time,” he explains.

Before coming to UT, Misztal studied chemistry in his hometown of Lublin, Poland, and received his PhD at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He moved to the United States to do his postdoctoral work at UC-Berkeley, where he was part of a pioneering team of researchers that used advanced mass spectrometric methods and “novel approaches to air quality measurements and understanding factors that affect human health,” he says. Now his research at UT Austin could potentially lead to detecting metabolic diseases, such as cancer, through changes in the chemical compounds in breath emission.

“What makes me excited is to see happy students and to see students that are successful,” Misztal says. Which is why, during the fall 2020 semester, Misztal worked to make sure his students still received hands-on lab experience. He split his class in half to have smaller labs in safe, well-ventilated environments.

“It was double the work for me,” he says, “but I was doing it because I knew it was the way to go.” A former student put his response to the pandemic this way: “The way he still made every effort to encourage us to do experiments, to further our knowledge, was exemplary.” — Sarah Thurmond

Chiu-Mi Lai

Professor of Instruction, Department of Asian Studies, College of Liberal Arts | Years at UT: 16

“WOULD YOU LIKE A CUP OF TEA?” asks Chiu-Mi Lai when she greets visitors at her office. As she explains it, sipping hot tea is about “mindfulness and taking time to do something — especially on cold days, it’s kind of warm and lovely.” The simple offering is just one example of how Lai connects with her students.

Born in Taiwan, Lai was about 4 years old when her family moved to Michigan for her father to return to graduate school for his PhD. After spending her formative years in Hawaii, she left for college to study English and Chinese literature. Lai has been teaching since she was in high school — first 5-year-olds learning to play the piano, then tutoring remedial algebra to junior high students in the summer. “I discovered I liked working problems out with people,” she says. “I had patience, I guess.”

At the college level, she has taught at universities such as Rice in Houston, and held research positions at MIT and Harvard. She and her husband later moved to Austin when he was recruited to teach at the Jackson School of Geosciences. She was offered a position in the Department of Asian Studies. After a few years on the east coast, they were happy to return to the Lone Star State. “Texas is really its own brand of something,” she says. “There’s a welcoming of outsiders.”

A trained sinologist, Lai is an expert on areas of medieval Chinese poetry, Chinese history and culture, and linguistics, and has taught a variety of subject matter. This year is no exception. Her five courses range from East Asian memoirs written by outsiders (such as Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana by Stephanie Elizondo Griest, BA, BJ ’97) to the history of food and healing in China and Taiwan. Each semester she invites students to participate in hands-on sensory experiences outside the classroom, like excursions to a North Austin teahouse to learn about medicinal teas, or to watch the full harvest moon rise at the UT Tower.

“There’s a lot that we learn outside of the classroom,” Lai explains. “The traditional, conventional classroom is really great for some things, but how we become citizens of the world, we have to see the world.” — S.T.

Rod Hart

Shivers Centennial Chair in Communication, Distinguished Teaching Professor, Professor of Government, Moody College of Communication, College of Liberal Arts | Years at UT: 43

“MOST GUYS MY AGE ARE RETIRED or playing golf or going on cruises, but I don’t have any interest in that,” says Rod Hart, 77, who’s been a professor at Moody for 43 years. Hart spent 11 of those years as dean of the college and was instrumental in the building of the Belo Center for New Media (now the G. B. Dealey Center for New Media) and soliciting the naming gift of $50 million by the Moody Foundation. Not bad for a kid from Fall River, Massachusetts, who originally wanted to be a lawyer.

Hart found his calling during his freshman year at the University of Massachusetts, when he became known around campus as the guy who could help you write your paper. One day while working with a business major on a paper about Napoleon, Hart had an epiphany: “The student said something, I said, ‘Bingo,’ and his eyes lit up. It was at that moment I decided I was going to be a teacher. I realized it was my questions that made him able to find that argument, and that was just magical.”

After teaching at Purdue University, Hart came to Austin to join the faculty at UT expecting sagebrush and horses. Instead, he found the Hill Country — and Mexican food — and fell in love with the area. “I was told I could eat a soft taco with my hands as I was trying to cut it with a knife,” he says, laughing.

After directing 33 dissertations, the grandfather of five no longer teaches at the graduate level. Instead, he focuses on his courses for undergraduates. “It makes me feel young,” he says. “That’s selfish I suppose, but I love questions and to be around young people when they’re asking questions and helping them formulate answers. It’s life-affirming.” — S.T.

Lauren Ehrlich

Lorene Morrow Kelley Fellow, Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences, Courtesy Associate Professor of Oncology, College of Natural Sciences, Dell Medical School | Years at UT: 12

LAUREN EHRLICH’S ZEAL for the immune system is something to behold. “She would literally get so excited about the topic that she would bob up and down during her lectures, unable to contain her enthusiasm,” one former student and nominator wrote.

Growing up in Austin, Ehrlich loved science and solving puzzles, which turned into working in the lab with her mother, who works as an immunologist for MD Anderson. Then she took an introductory biology course during her freshman year at Yale and was officially hooked.

“The professor taught a little section of immunology, and I was fascinated,” she says. “He was just an engaging lecturer, and he answered my naïve questions and took me seriously. That’s important.”

After graduate school at Stanford and postdoctoral fellowships at UCSF and Stanford, Ehrlich returned to her hometown to join the faculty at UT, where she teaches an upper-level introductory course on immunology. “Students ask great questions, and I really appreciate when they do, because sometimes it makes you stop and realize that you don’t understand something really fundamental,” she says. “They’re coming from a blank slate.”

When she’s not in the classroom, Ehrlich is in her lab studying how T cells develop and fight off pathogens without attacking our bodies, work she often brings into the classroom so students can see the science that’s impacting their lives. Ehrlich hopes they gain not only a better understanding of the immune system, but also critical thinking skills that can help them make good choices for their health.

“It’s rewarding to see them putting together the pieces of how an immune response works,” she says. “They’re getting the bigger picture of what’s actually going on — I think they understand the relevance of immunology now more than ever.” — S.T.

Rosalie Ambrosino

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Steve Hicks School of Social Work | Years at UT: 32

WHETHER TEACHING ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE, human behavior, or child welfare, Rosalie Ambrosino loves to create a sense of community in her classroom. “I think the best way for students to learn is to hear the voices of each other,” she says.

It’s a practice that has been especially helpful throughout the pandemic, as she’s noticed students sharing more about mental health issues, including their own, and discovering their resiliencies and strengths. They’re also recognizing how disparities can impact different groups, including within their own classroom community.

“It’s rewarding for me to see the students become more self-aware. As they get more self-aware of themselves and their own worldviews, they look at other groups and see them and are able to grow from that,” Ambrosino, PhD ’85, Life Member, says.

Prior to her teaching career, the Minnesota native worked as a social worker in several different environments, including a settlement house in St. Paul, a school in rural Minnesota, and at Native American reservations. She was hired by the Center of Social Work Research at UT to work on a federally funded project that dealt with child abuse and neglect. While in the PhD program, the dean asked her to teach. She initially dismissed the idea, thinking she could make more of a difference working in the field. But when she finally agreed to it, she found her passion. “There’s nothing I like doing better,” she says.

“When I teach, I hear the students and all their hopes and dreams,” she says. “They’re way ahead in their thinking. They’ve got lots of diversity in their thinking, but they’re willing to grapple with the issues, and they’re willing to talk about things that in the past we didn’t talk about. That’s what gives me hope. I think that’s why I teach.” — S.T.

Juan Dominguez

Professor of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts, College of Natural Sciences | Years at UT: 14

JUAN DOMINGUEZ KNOWS HOW MUCH a good professor can change a student’s life. As an undergraduate student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, his first biopsychology course changed the entire trajectory of his own.

“The class I teach now was the class I took as an undergraduate myself that opened my eyes up to what I’m doing today,” he says. In fact, almost every Sunday, Dominguez still calls the professor from that biopsychology class. “She’s like a second mother to me,” he says. “I am a product of my own professors.”

Decades later, Dominguez finds his former students calling him, too, for advice, or sometimes just to tell them what a difference he has made in their lives — like the recent student who told him he inspired her to pursue her PhD.

“Some of what I’m teaching them is not because they need to do well on an exam, or they need to learn this so that they can save someone’s life,” he says, “It’s just knowledge for the sake of knowledge. When you’re a student at a Tier One university like UT, you’re going to leave with a degree from our university. And as such, you should leave here with knowledge.”

“Knowledge for the sake of knowledge” is something Dominguez has taken into his own life as well — he’s a pilot, a devoted fan of classical music, and is so passionate about art, he takes his “Love, Mating, and the Brain” undergraduate signature course to the Blanton Museum, instructing them to write about a painting or sculpture that elicits an undeniable emotional response in them.

And even if he (admittedly) doesn’t always remember the life-changing things he’s told his students, Dominguez knows every day in the classroom, he’s making an impact.

“We are never the same person after we interact with somebody else, because that interaction has in some ways changed who we are, but also physically changed our brain,” he says. “I get to change people’s brains on a daily basis — well, twice a week, at least. And that’s the best thing in the world.” — A.R.

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The Alcalde

The Alcalde

All things University of Texas—sports, feature stories, alumni news, and more—from the magazine of the Texas Exes. Find more at alcalde.texasexes.org.